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Posted October 7, 2009 | comments Leave a comment

Concrete vineyard: Linden vintner brings Old World method to East Coast first

By Laetitia Clayton -- lclayton@nvdaily.com

LINDEN -- As Virginia winegrowers go, Jim Law is a pioneer.

Law, owner of Linden Vineyards in Linden, was among the first in the state to start a vineyard and open a winery in the 1980s. The Virginia wine industry has grown from a handful to nearly 150 wineries since then.

Once again, Law is ahead of the game by being the first winegrower -- not only in Virginia, but on the entire East Coast -- to purchase a concrete grape-fermenting tank, a large egg-shaped vessel that sits in his cellar among the oak barrels and stainless steel tanks.

"Linden Vineyards is indeed the first winery to purchase an egg-shaped tank from Nomblot on the East Coast, if you exclude Ontario, Canada," said Jerome Aubin, the North American representative for Nomblot, the French company that makes the tanks. There are several wineries on the West Coast that have been using Nomblot's tanks for several years, he said.

In fact, it was during a 2005 visit to Rudd Vineyard & Winery in Napa Valley, Calif., that Law first saw the tanks.

"They had one of every shape there," he said. "It intrigued me."

Law, who makes Linden's wines and also grows the grapes on the picturesque 21 acres surrounding his winery, said he began researching concrete tanks and found that they are known for their ability to breathe like oak, but they maintain a more even temperature. They are easier to clean than oak, and have an indefinite life, much like stainless steel. The egg's "natural convection" also eliminates the need for stirring, he said, which is sometimes needed in oak barrels once the yeast settles. This is particularly true if the wine needs texture and complexity, he said.

"[Stirring] gives it more of what the French call 'fat,'" Law said, but the motion can also disturb the wine.

Although the concrete vessels come in several shapes and sizes -- including pyramids, cubes and ovals -- Law chose an egg shape, partly because it is regarded as a life force.

"The egg gives life to the wine," he said.

For the tank's first fermentation, Law selected chardonnay grapes from Avenius, one of the other two local vineyards that supplies grapes for Linden. Avenius, a 5-acre site less than a mile north of Linden Vineyards, is owned and grown by Shari Avenius, who is also Linden's director.

"Shari uses a lot of biodynamic methods in her vineyard," Law said, which goes hand in hand with the idea of the egg giving life to the wine. Biodynamic agriculture centers around ecological self-sufficiency, but includes ethical and spiritual aspects in the process.

Law primarily uses oak barrels for grape-fermenting, as do most wineries, with stainless steel tanks second. But concrete is beginning to make a comeback, he said. Winemakers used it years ago, but many abandoned it as technology evolved.

"Modern technology is something everybody gravitates toward," Law said. "People used to farm by folklore instead of science. Winemakers abandoned the old ways, but now are thinking maybe they were wise."

Patrick Sullivan, Rudd's executive winemaker, agrees.

"Concrete in general is not a new concept," he said. "They've been using them for eons, but people got rid of them because of sanitation, spoilage, bacteria. They found that stainless steel works a lot better to keep things clean. Now we're kind of shifting back. Now we understand a lot better just exactly what we're up against in how to keep things clean."

Sullivan said many winemakers in Europe never stopped using concrete fermenting tanks.

"In the Old World, they didn't get rid of them because they really liked them," he said. "They liked what they did to the wine. It was a preference for the way the wine evolved with those fermenters."

Law's winegrowing philosophy is more about intuition than science, and he believes that wine is made in the vineyard, not the cellar -- one reason he prefers the term winegrower instead of winemaker.

Still, he is anxious to find out how the egg will change his wine. To compare, he put grapes from the same vineyard in an oak barrel and will taste the two periodically. In the end, he may blend them.

"I never know what we're gonna do," Law said. "It all comes down to the taste of the wine."

Sullivan has already had the chance to taste the difference concrete makes.

"I like what they do to the wines," he said. "They change them enough that it gives them a different complexity, and I like having all the components. The concrete eggs give great structure. It doesn't overpower [the wine] like the wood does."

Sullivan says he always ends up blending the wines from the three different fermenting tanks -- oak, stainless and concrete.

"It's nice to have all the different components," he said.

For now, Law will have to wait while his 150-gallon egg ferments the chardonnay until late July or August.

"We're all very excited about it," he said. "Ultimately it boils down to, 'stay tuned.'"

Linden Vineyards is at 3708 Harrels Corner Road in Linden. All the grapes that go into making Linden wines are grown on three sites: Hardscrabble, the 21 acres surrounding the winery; Avenius; a 5-acre site about 1 mile north of Linden Vineyards; and Boisseau, a 4-acre site seven miles west of Linden.

For more information call 364-1997 or go online to www.lindenvineyards.com.

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